Are live bacteria treatments the future of skincare?
In May, as the first heat of summer was coming on, I decided to stop bathing. I ditched my soap and shampoo. Instead of scrubbing down in the shower each morning or after a sweaty bike ride, I spritzed myself with "live probiotic spray for the skin," a dose of bacteria that's supposed to feed on the ammonia in sweat and neutralize the smell. I got rid of my deodorant, too.
It was an interesting couple of weeks. I had some good hair days. I also smelled bad sometimes. At one point, I got puked on, and put this theory of cleanliness to its ultimate test.
If you ask people who work at Mother Dirt, the Boston-based company that manufactures live bacteria products for the skin, treatments like this are the future of skincare. David Whitlock, the chemist behind it, hasn't showered in 13 years.
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It's a vision that's at odds with the way we've treated bacteria for decades: as something to be eliminated with soaps, antibiotics, a palmful of Purell.
"Our mission is rethinking clean," president Jasmina Aganovic told me. As a society, "our perception of 'clean' has become confused with the word 'sterile,'" she continued, but if you ask her, true cleanliness comes from cultivating the right kinds of bacteria on your body—not washing them indiscriminately down the drain.
Blasting bacteria with a frothy soap scrub can feel pretty good, especially on a sticky-hot day, or when you've recently been doused in vomit. Could swapping my soaps for a bacteria-rich spray really give me better skin, and keep me clean? More importantly, is "good" bacteria a cure for what ails us in this ultra-sterile modern age?
I wanted to find out. So for two weeks, I turned my body into a kind of science experiment.
The human microbiome, as the weird and wonderful community of microorganisms that inhabits us is called—they number in the billions upon billions—is an increasingly hot area of research, as it's become clear just how much it impacts our health.
Bacteria help us digest our food. They boost our immune systems. They play all kinds of roles, for better or worse. And they can also make us very sick.
Each of us has a microbiome that's as unique as a fingerprint, and starts to establish itself from birth, maybe earlier. In fact, babies who are born via C-section seem to have slightly different microbiomes than those delivered vaginally. While no studies have established beyond a doubt that this causes health problems, scientists are experimenting with swabbing newborns down with vaginal microbes after a C-section delivery, to see if it makes a difference.
Most of the research so far has focused on the gut, which is brimming with bacteria. But the skin, our body's largest organ, makes lots of important interactions with microbes, too.
Our skin microbiome is like a map of the world, with different microbial "countries," or communities, on different body parts, each with a distinct culture.
"The bend of your left elbow is most similar to the bend of your right elbow," Julie Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute, who studies the skin microbiome, told me. "But the bend of your elbow is more similar to the bend of my elbow, than your underarm."
The people at Mother Dirt believe that we've managed to wipe out a species of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria that lives on all creatures, including ancient humans. (Its strain is called Nitrosomonas eutropha.) Restoring those AOBs, as they call them, to their rightful place could be good for our health. At least, that's the basis for their products.
"In nature, this bacteria is found literally everywhere you have ammonia produced," Aganovic told me. "The only exception is modern human skin."
We've been actively waging war against bacteria, treating them as the enemy
She cautioned me against going "cold turkey," and ditching all my products on day one. "That's very brave and I don't recommend it," she said. It can take some time for the body to adjust to a new regimen, and in the meantime—before these AOBs can really take hold—people who get rid of their old products can see nasty side effects, she said.
"Body odour is the one that, to be candid, I get the most nervous about," Aganovic admitted.
I'd allotted myself two weeks for this experiment—the amount of time she said that it usually takes to start noticing a difference—and I didn't want to ease myself in. So, on day one, my shampoos, soaps, conditioners and deodorant were all stashed away.
I woke up, jumped in the shower, and scrubbed down with Mother Dirt's bacteria-friendly "cleanser," which produced a bouncy froth that reminded me of toothpaste foam but didn't really leave me feeling clean, and a shampoo that's supposed to "enhance" whatever those AOBs are doing (the shampoo didn't lather at all). Then I sprayed myself with AO+ Mist, a "live probiotic spray for the skin," focusing on where I sweat the most—the back of my neck, my elbows, under my arms.
I hopped on my bike and pedalled to work.
And actually, the next few days were fine. I passed every sniff test. I felt good, if a little overly humid by the end of the day. I didn't miss my makeup or soaps.
Then I got my first zit in about seven years.
Five days along, I came in the door from work, sticky from the bike ride home, and headed into the kitchen to the fridge (where I was storing my AO+ Mist, as per the company's directions). I swung open the fridge door and started spritzing myself down, figuring I was giving these bacteria a good meal after working up a sweat.
A friend was cooking nearby at the stove. He freaked out.
"What are you doing?" he shouted. "Aaaaugh! Get it away from the food!" (For what it's worth, the mist is apparently "preservative-free" and "kid-friendly," although the word "edible" doesn't feature on its packaging.)
It was a reminder that we've come to see all bacteria as bad—as carriers of disease.
I took my spray into the other room.
Since the discovery of penicillin, some 90 years ago—arguably even longer than that—we've been actively waging war against bacteria, treating them as the enemy. Antibiotics, indoor plumbing, and pasteurization (not to mention ubiquitous hand sanitizers) have allowed modern society to thrive. But they might have come at a cost. Conditions like asthma, obesity, juvenile diabetes, and food allergies are all on the rise.
Some scientists suspect that modern hygiene is partly to blame, and many are investigating it, with interesting results cropping up. One 2015 study, of 1,029 Swedish kids, found that those whose parents reported mostly washing dishes by hand (instead of using a dishwasher) were less likely to develop allergic diseases, including eczema. (Dishwashers have been found to reduce bacterial content on utensils, the paper notes.)
But the science is a long way from settled, and anyone who tells you otherwise might be trying to sell you something.
Skin problems like acne and eczema have become increasingly common, Aganovic pointed out. Although we can't definitively link these to changes in our microbial environment, she asked, "Have we missed something?"
Whitlock got the idea for AOBiome (Mother Dirt is the company's consumer arm) after observing that horses like to roll around in the dirt. They do so "to get the right bacteria" on their skin, he believes. He thinks we all could benefit from the microbes they're picking up.
According to Whitlock, these bacteria are "extremely sensitive to detergents," and they're slow-growing enough that once they're washed away, their numbers don't immediately spring back. Aganovic, who seems to recognize that discouraging baths would alienate potential customers, insists it isn't washing that's the problem.
"It's not bathing per se," she said. "It's the products we use in the shower, and after, that are toxic to the bacteria."
Both are careful not to promise that their bacteria-rich product will "cure" eczema or acne. Instead, they talk about achieving "balance" to promote healthier skin.
"When there's an imbalance in the ecosystem," Aganovic said, "it gives space to problematic bacteria to grow out of control. A balanced ecosystem keeps everything in check."
I asked Whitlock about his no-shower regimen.
"I don't feel dirty. If I did, I would wash," he said matter-of-factly, adding that he does wash his hands before preparing food and after using the toilet.
"Everyone asks, does he smell. And the answer is no," Aganovic jumped in. "People think we've naturally evolved to be smelly, and that isn't the case. Sixty percent of our users stop using deodorant," she continued. "Odour is caused by a bacterial imbalance. If you keep them in check, it takes care of itself."
Early into my second week, I wasn't feeling so good. My hair was pretty greasy. I was wilted by the end of the day, and I found myself constantly doing laundry. At one point, my friend Liz took a deep dive into my armpit and described my smell as "salty." She also told me that I wasn't looking all that great, but I knew that already.
Nobody ever accused me of having BO, but I knew I was a little ripe.
The low point was on a car trip, nine days in. Three hours into a five-hour drive, following another passenger's bout of carsickness, well, I was barfed upon. (We'd just had ice cream at McDonalds.) I did my best to clean myself up, but I couldn't shower for another two hours until we reached our destination—and even then, I played by the rules, and used only the Mother Dirt cleanser, its froth light as air, disappearing down the drain.
I didn't feel clean for a long time after that.
Over the course of my two-week experiment, I got a few scientists on the phone who study human skin and how it interacts with the immune system. I wanted to hear their thoughts on whether live bacteria treatments, like what Mother Dirt is selling, could be valuable.
I did hear some skepticism. And if anything became clear to me, it's that the science of probiotics is a young field. We don't really have a good idea about what they can do.
One raised questions about how easily such a bacteria might take hold, even on someone who did diligently spritz herself with AO+ Mist many times a day.
"Our research shows that [the skin microbiome] is remarkably stable," said Julia Oh of the Jackson Laboratory. "We're always showering, and washing our hands using antibiotic products, and being touched by people [in different environments]." And for all of this, our microbiome doesn't actually change very much, she explained—in the same way that, just because you encounter a virus of some kind on the subway, you won't necessarily pick it up and get sick. We're good at fighting off the invaders.
But Oh does seem to think there could be more of these products in the future, once researchers work out the kinks. "There's a tremendous opportunity in the probiotic and prebiotic space," she said. With enough of these bacteria, you might be able to "tickle" the immune system, as she put it, to provoke some kind of beneficial response.
Anyway, Mother Dirt isn't attempting to reinvent the wheel.
Scientists are already looking at using fecal transplants, which contain a healthy dose of bacteria, against a range of conditions, from C. difficile infection to Crohn's disease. Some studies have seen promising results. Dousing newborn babies with vaginal microbes is another potential way to manipulate the microbiome, if it's proven to have an effect. AOBiome is forging ahead on research that should confirm whether or not its ammonia-oxidizing bacteria can treat acne.
Putting "good" bacteria on our skin suddenly doesn't seem like quite such a leap.
As for me, well—as my non-scientific experiment began to wind down, and with the finish line in sight, I started wondering if I'd really be ready to go back to my old soaps and deodorants. I had a fair amount of the Mother Dirt shampoo left, and plenty of AO+ Mist. (I'd ripped through that little bottle of body wash, though. I must have been using a lot of it to feel clean.)
I'd spent two weeks trying to build up a critical mass of "good" bacteria on my body, in order to reap all the supposed benefits of a healthy and "balanced" skin microbiome. Maybe I wouldn't feel so eager, I thought, to nuke them in a soapy shower.
But the truth is that, as soon as the sun rose on day 15, I was back to using all my old products. Over those two weeks, I never smelled terrible, and my skin even looked sort of glowy sometimes (one zit reared its head, then disappeared soon after). But old habits die hard. I already have a routine, and favourite products on my bathroom shelf.
Within a decade or two, maybe everyone will be spritzing themselves with good-for-you bacteria, and deodorant will seem old-fashioned and weird. Maybe hospitals will be dosing their patients with strains of beneficial bacteria, brewed inside powerful "robo-guts," and every course of antibiotics will include a bacterial chaser.
Until then, the biggest contribution of Mother Dirt, and the other companies like it that will inevitably spring up, will be getting people to think of bacteria differently: not as something to wage war against, but as something we've always lived with. For better and for worse.
All images by Samuel Bucket, a Toronto Art Collective born out of a vacant lot. Theatre of the Absurd; art mashing antisocial commentary, alternative culture loss and powerless mythologies. A drooling art commentary randomly cultivated through the blind collaboration of Caroline Mosby and Michael Toke.